20 years after Roland Garros 2004, a look back at the greatest day in Argentine tennis

The two-week tournament was a perfect storm of skill and drama, ending with the most unlikely winner of all

On June 6, 2004, Argentine tennis saw a historic landmark — one that’s yet to be repeated. As Gastón Gaudio and Guillermo Coria took to the court to play in the 2004 Roland Garros final, Argentina became one of only seven countries to have two representatives in the same Grand Slam final. 

When you take into account the context of what was going on with the sport at the time, there’s a case to be made for that Sunday being perhaps the greatest day in Argentine tennis history. 

The fortnight between May 24 and June 6 could also be considered its best two weeks ever. In the build-up to that moment, Argentine stars dominated Paris. David Nalbandian also reached the semis — he lost against Gaudio — and Juan Ignacio Chela had fallen in the quarterfinals. In the women’s draw, Paola Suárez reached the singles semifinals and won her third doubles title earlier that day.

According to journalist Alfredo Bernardi, who was there to see Gaudio lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires following his win, it was the “perfect moment in every sense” and showed that Argentines had that “extra something to go all the way.”

The Argentine Legion

The 2004 Roland Garros final was the culminating moment for a generation of Argentine players known as la Legión. A group of prodigies that came up through the ranks in the late 90s and turned the country into a tennis powerhouse. At one point in the aughts, Argentina boasted 14 players in the top 100 of the ATP ranking, the most of any nation.

The key to understanding that moment is the convertibilidad: An Argentine monetary law approved in 1991 that established a one-to-one rate between the Argentine peso and the US dollar. This allowed Argentine players in the development stages to access financing and compete outside the country. 

“At that time, you needed around US$400,000 to develop as a professional tennis player, at the pace of around US$70,000 per year, from ages 14 to 19,” Bernardi explained.

As part of a new player development plan, the Argentine Tennis Association (AAT, for its Spanish initials) backed Coria and Nalbandian to compete at the highest level. For everyone else, the dollar rate allowed them to take on loans and gamble on themselves. 

When Franco Squillari became the first Argentine in 18 years to reach the men’s singles semifinals at Roland Garros in 2000, the idea of an Argentine “Legion” of players began to take shape. 

“[Franco’s brother] Pier said ‘We have the Leonas, we have the Pumas. Tennis needs a name too,’” recalls Bernardi. A history graduate, he took inspiration from the Roman legions touring Europe fighting, much like the Argentine players toured to play.

The Legión Argentina was born, and it quickly took off, both on newspapers and on the courts.

A rivalry forged through years

Comradery, however, wasn’t easily found among the Argentine tennis stars. Players fought over prizes, sponsors and even coaches, but few held such animosity as Coria and Gaudio

It all started at the 2001 Viña del Mar final. Coria, a life-long River Plate fan, imitated Chilean Millonario striker Marcelo Salas’ usual celebration after winning. Gaudio disliked it and had his revenge seven days later, waving his Independiente flag after beating Coria in the Buenos Aires Open quarterfinals.

The boiling point came in 2003, when they clashed in the Hamburg semifinal. Gaudio felt Coria was mocking him after he limped to the net following a 6-0 win in the final set. He didn’t wait for retaliation, shouting: “What’s your problem? If you look at me like that, I’ll f*cking batter you, idiot.”

The Argentines’ tournament

In the weeks leading up to Roland Garros that year, there was a feeling that an Argentine could win it. And the path to that scenario seemed to materialize quickly in the first few days of the tournament. Six of the top ten players exited early, including defending champion Juan Carlos Ferrero and home favorite Sébastien Grosjean.

The Argentines, however, were favorites in their own right. Coria, the clay king before Nadal, was coming off a Montecarlo Masters win, while Nalbandian had just lost the Rome Masters final.

Gaudio, on the other hand, always had the skill but lacked the mindset. After an exhibition game in Brazil, Gustavo Kuerten took Gaudio to the side and asked, “Gastón, when are you going to stop fooling around and start taking this seriously?” 

“He was a special player,” said Bernardi. “The problem was he couldn’t handle mistakes and demanded too much of himself.”

The men weren’t the only Argentines making waves. Already a five time doubles Grand Slam winner, Paola Suárez was having her best run in a Grand Slam women’s singles draw. 

“Her doubles career allowed her to gain confidence in her singles game,” said Bernardi, who recalls running between courts as Suárez and Coria secured semifinal spots at the same time. Despite losing in the semis singles, Suárez would go on to win the tournament in the doubles alongside Spanish player Virginia Ruano Pascual.

“She worked in silence, another one who had to borrow money to make it, but she was just another member of the Legion. That tournament saw four Argentine semifinalists and two champions.”

The final

For all the tensions and flair ups before the game, the final quickly looked like it would be a one-sided affair after Coria raced to an early 6-0, 6-3 lead. 

“It wasn’t a good final for the international press. There wasn’t much interest with two Argentines playing, and at that point, it wasn’t even entertaining; it was a beating,” recalls Bernardi.

Perhaps dulled by the uneventful game, the French crowd started to do a stadium wave at 4-3 in the third set. Gaudio took the interruption in stride and came alive, while Coria seemingly began to crack. He started to cramp up and dropped the next two sets, 6-4 and 6-1. The match was now tied and heading to the final set. 

Coria made one last stand in the fifth set and even had two match points at 6-5 up, but missed both. “He shut down at the biggest moment of his life; it was too much for him,” said Bernardi. “In any other match, he wouldn’t have missed those two shots.”

Having fought back from two sets down, Gaudio took his chance and won against all odds  — at the time, only the fourth player to do so. His self-deprecation appeared even in victory. “I didn’t win; I didn’t win. It’s not me; this isn’t possible,” he shouted to the television cameras. 

Roland Garros 2004’s legacy

The game proved to be a turning point for Coria. He dropped from the 2004 Olympic Games, where he was a candidate to be the Argentine flag carrier. After undergoing a shoulder operation, he changed his serve motion and struggled with service yips for the rest of his career. He retired in 2009, citing a lack of will to continue competing.

The honeymoon didn’t last all that long for Gaudio either. The win made him a top ten overnight and propelled him to the most successful year in his career in 2005, when he won  five tournaments, including the Buenos Aires ATP. 

According to Bernardi, the beginning of the end came precisely one year later, in Roland Garros 2005. After winning the first set comfortably, Gaudio told his rival’s coach, “Don’t worry, I’m going to lose today,” and eventually fell after five sets. “That’s who he was,” said Bernardi. “He won and enjoyed it in his own way and for as long as he could.”

Twenty years on from it all, Bernardi considers that Roland Garros 2004’s legacy still resonates. “It showed Argentine tennis could grow and develop past the achievements of Vilas and Sabatini and certified Argentina as the leading force of Latin American tennis.”


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